The Columbia Journalism Review plays darts every issue with unworthy journalists, but its Darts & Laurels feature for May and June threw one at the entire "U.S. news media." Launching a dubious metaphor, CJR took the American media to task "for failing to pick up a long-distance signal."
The item explained that when major papers in Britain, Germany, Canada, Israel, and other countries "recently rang, sometimes on page one, with the findings of a five-country study that showed a statistically significant increase in a certain type of brain tumor among people who had used cell phones for ten years or more, one might have expected the American press to at least record the message." But it didn't, said CJR, even though "the telecom industry here keeps hoping that the FCC and the federal health agencies will raise the levels of cell-phone radiation currently allowed.
"Memo to journalists: call waiting."
Cell-phone radiation is non-ionizing, which means it produces heat but, at least in theory, doesn't threaten biological organisms at the atomic level. The idea that noniodizing radiation is a menace regardless goes back at least as far as the 1977 book The Zapping of America: Microwaves, Their Deadly Risk, and the Coverup, by New Yorker writer Paul Brodeur.
"There is a vast conspiracy among the press, especially newspapers, not to write about the biological studies, especially the epidemiological studies done in Europe," Brodeur told me this week. Like other vast conspiracies, this one shows every sign of being able to live on indefinitely, never confirmed beyond doubt or discredited to everyone's satisfaction. That a long period of latency precedes whatever damage cell phones might do only hardens both sides' convictions.
CJR singled out two publications for praise: the Florida Sun-Sentinel, for reporting the study, which was published in January by the International Journal of Cancer, and Microwave News, a newsletter that provided a "comprehensive, comprehensible account of the controversial findings." Brodeur tells me its editor, Louis Slesin, got his start by studying the Zapping files and is now "the authority on microwave radiation."
When I looked online for the story CJR told me wasn't there--well, it wasn't there. On the ABC News site I found an AP story with the headline "Study Disputes Cell Phone-Cancer Link: Large Study From Denmark Offers the Latest Reassurance That Cell Phones Don't Trigger Cancer." Medpagetoday.com carried a staff-written story citing the same Danish study and headlined "Once Again, No Cell Phone-Cancer Link Found." The PC Magazine Web site carried a Reuters story based on a British survey under the headline "Study Minimizes Cancer Risk From Cell Phones."
And the very day I conducted my search, May 29, MSN.com touted a story by MSNBC science editor Alan Boyle on the possible link between cell-phone radiation and low sperm count and played it for laughs: "There's no known connection between cell phone radiation and health risks, but thankfully there's silver-threaded underwear for those who are concerned."
Ho ho. Slesin was so concerned that the American press wasn't telling the public something it needed to know that he wrote and shopped around an op-ed sounding the alarm. It began, "Two billion people now use cell phones, many for hours on end. But are they safe? Could putting a small microwave transmitter next to your brain lead to cancer or a neurological disease?"
He couldn't be sure, "but some of the early returns are disquieting." Citing studies that other reporters took comfort in, Slesin said they "point to a problem over the long term. These studies show that using a cell phone for more than ten years leads to higher rates of two different kinds of tumors: gliomas, a type of brain tumor, and acoustic neuromas, a tumor of the nerve that connects the ear to the brain. In each case, the tumors were more likely to be on the side of the head closest to the phone."
"To be sure, these are still preliminary findings," Slesin acknowledged, but he didn't think it made sense to ignore them. In his view skeptics who assert that "the worst microwaves can do is heat you up, and even then only at power levels much higher than you could ever get from a cell phone" not only "abound" but dominate the debate in this country. "The heating-only advocates, many of whom have links to industry, are in control even though laboratory research has shown that microwave radiation can damage DNA, upset sleep patterns, alter cognitive function, increase the flow of chemicals through the blood-brain barrier and bring on headaches."
Here in the U.S., Slesin wrote, no epidemiological studies are being made of cell-phone radiation, the American Cancer Society has called the idea of cancer risk a "myth," and Consumer Reports published a long recent report on cell phones that didn't even take up the question of radiation. But "it's a completely different story in Europe."
The op-ed wasn't published. Slesin says the New York Times and Boston Globe both turned it down.
When I asked Brodeur to explain what he meant by a "vast conspiracy," he took a verbal step back, as if to distance himself from the lunatic fringe. "What there is is self-censorship," he replied. "The reason is, as always, money. You follow the money trail and the newspapers have a vested interest in the big telecommunications companies. It's an enormously powerful industry and it has managed to convince a lot of people there is absolutely no harm." Slesin said something similar in his op-ed: he claimed the "wireless industry has a stranglehold on the health debate" and "Motorola and Nokia, the two largest phone manufacturers, dismiss all claims of a possible hazard."
When I looked harder I began to find studies that backed Slesin up. For instance, "Tumour risk associated with use of cellular telephones or cordless desktop telephones" appeared in the World Journal of Surgical Oncology in October 2006. And in January of that year, "Cellular Phones, Cordless Phones, and the Risks of Glioma and Meningioma" ran in the American Journal of Epidemiology, where it was reported that "among long-term cellular phone users [ten years or more] a twofold risk of glioma was observed."
But I also discovered a mainstream newspaper article neither CJR nor Slesin had given credit to. It ran February 18 in the Chicago Tribune and was written by Mike Hughlett, a financial writer who covers Motorola. Hughlett says he wrote about the debate because he considered it part of his beat. "I'd read for years about it," he says. "I wondered, is it a dead issue? I researched and it didn't seem to be a dead issue--on the other hand, there was nothing you could prove. My story was more about science than business, the limits of science."
Hughlett reported that most epidemiological studies done in Europe haven't found a statistical link between tumors and cell-phone usage--but not all. "The problem," Hughlett wrote, "in addition to the conflicting lab results: lack of an accepted scientific theory" of how cell-phone radiation could cause harm.
Hughlett talked off and on with Slesin for months, and the article labeled him either "a pot-stirring independent voice, or an advocate of the view that radiation risks are being soft-peddled--depending on who's describing him." Those are pretty friendly characterizations, and not even mutually exclusive. Slesin is willing to answer to either one.
Yet when Slesin accused the media of negligence he didn't cite Hughlett as an exception. "Here's why he dropped off my radar screen," Slesin e-mailed me. "I guess I never considered his piece as covering the tumor findings. He does mention them, but not as spot news, the way the Sun-Sentinel did. It's more one item in an 'On the one hand . . . and on the other hand' piece. . . . But he did mention the tumor findings, which is more than most everyone else in the U.S. did."
Gloria Cooper, who writes Darts & Laurels for CJR, didn't know about Hughlett's story until I told her, and then she was embarrassed. "We did the best search we could possibly do," she said, wondering aloud if she should run a correction. She asked what Hughlett had said to me about her CJR item, but the obliviousness was mutual. Hughlett hadn't known it existed.
For more, see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.